President Donald J. Trump disembarks from Marine One at the White House on June 14, 2020.

President Donald J. Trump disembarks from Marine One at the White House on June 14, 2020. White House / Tia Dufour

The Military Won’t Save Us – and You Shouldn’t Want Them To

It’s deeply irresponsible, not to mention organizationally nonsensical, to suggest that Gen. Milley should evict an election-losing Trump from the White House.

We write to repudiate the deeply irresponsible position taken by John Nagl and Paul Yingling in these pages yesterday. Their call for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be ready to issue orders to the American military for forcibly removing President Trump from office is as dangerous to our republic as the problem they purport to solve. Even contemplating it is damaging to the trust between the American people and those citizens who serve in our military. Their comments denigrate the Constitution, suggesting an unelected military officer should ever occupy the sole position as its judge, jury, and executioner.

We are a country founded in concern about military usurpation of elected leaders. This is attested by the Constitution’s careful delineation of responsibilities between the president as commander in chief and the Congress, which retains authority to “raise and support Armies,” “provide and maintain a Navy,” and “provide for organizing, arming, disciplining,” and “calling forth the militia.” Standing armies were considered both a financial extravagance and a restive force politically as well as an active threat to individual liberty and republican government.

And we are fortunate to have as patron saint of military subordination to elected authority our own Cincinnatus, George Washington. Americans trust our military with policy influence most democracies would not because the professional ethos of subordination is so deeply ingrained. In fact, the restraint our military has exhibited is the dominant impediment to its usurpation of a much more active political role in American politics. Nagl and Yingling encourage Americans to see our military as the arbiters of political outcomes, something that would indelibly change the soul of our military and the character of our nation.

The Constitution provides remedies for a president refusing to leave office. The courts would, as they have before, determine whether electoral law had been followed, and the House would verify the results of the Electoral College. Even in the extremely unlikely, and unprecedented, event that election results remained actively and legally contested, the 20th Amendment includes a provision that “the terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January” and clear instructions in U.S. law dictate the line of succession. The chief justice would swear in the newly elected or appointed president, removing any authority from their predecessor. Any direction followed by the military or any government actor other than this civilian president from that point on would be illegal.

Laws, of course, do not enforce themselves. But other federal agencies, not the military, are responsible for domestic law enforcement. While there are legal exceptions to this principle, those legal authorities and domestic powers are not – and should never be – relegated to the military to assert independently.

Nagl and Yingling conjure the nightmare of President Trump calling violent protestors and unaccountable security forces (what they term a private army) into the streets, and we confess we share that worry. But security forces operating in Seattle, Portland and other American cities were acting under legal authority, worrisome as that legal authority might be. Mobilizing the American military solely on the chairman’s un-Constitutional discretion to suppress them is to remove our military from civilian oversight. Which is to destroy the basis on which the American people trust them and to grant the military, and the military alone, the authority to resolve political disputes.

For two people with defense policy experience, it’s surprising they would recommend the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as their standard bearer. Perhaps they appealed to General Milley as the most publicly recognizable figure of the nation’s most-respected institution. Or perhaps they thought his notoriety from participating in the president and attorney general’s disgraceful spectacle in Lafayette Square during Black Lives Matter protests gives General Milley particular Nixon-to-China cachet in repudiating undemocratic acts by the president.

But as a practical matter, if you’re going to advocate a coup, you might want to choose as its leader someone with command authority over actual troops. With the exception of the small cadre assigned to the Joint Staff, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has none by statute. Purposely. When the Congress created the chairman’s role in 1949 by amending the 1947 National Security Act, they made the position weak in part because they feared exactly the kind of role Nagl and Yingling advocate: a soldier putting themselves above the branches of government. And when the chairman’s advisory role was strengthened in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols defense reforms, combatant commanders were given operational responsibilities to balance the chairman’s role as principal military advisor and the service chiefs were also relegated to positions entirely outside the operational chain of command.

Perhaps Nagl and Yingling thought Milley’s lack of forces would make him a less threatening military figure in which to repose the authority of interfering in the processes of contested presidential election. A veritable Cincinnatus, wielding coercive power on behalf of the state then beating his sword into a ploughshare in order not to be a threat to the republic. But that belies the real possibility that if Milley resorted to an un-Constitutional use of military force, violence could escalate, and order might not be restored. And it ignores the damage that would be done to the fundamental compact between the American people and our military, which is that it remains outside our domestic politics.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, Glendower brags he can “call spirits up from the vasty deep.” Hotspur mocks him: “Why, so can I or so can any man; the question is will they come when you do call?” The only responsible, and legal, answer to an order issued by General Milley for military forces to march on the White House and remove President Trump would be not to come if he calls.

Kori Schake is Resident Scholar and Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and the co-host of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ "Thank You for Your Service" podcast on civil-military relations. He has served as a defense policy advisor at the U.S. Mission to NATO, special adviser to the vice president of the United States, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, and as a company commander and scout platoon leader in combat in Iraq. 

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